An alleged serial killer in Santa Monica raises red flags about targeted violence

By Gary Walker

Top: Ramon Escobar, 47, is charged with beating three homeless men and a fisherman sleeping under Santa Monica Pier to death in a spate of attacks between Sept. 8 and Sept. 24
Bottom: Joseph Ramirez Perez, 21, is charged with stabbing a homeless man to death in Tongva Park on Oct. 3
Right: A security camera recorded two men firing gunshots into a homeless encampment on Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista on July 26

Sleeping on the streets is a dangerous way to live — even more so when the homeless are being targeted by an apparent serial killer.

Ramon Escobar, a Texas man who fled the state after two of his relatives went missing, is charged with four counts of murder and multiple other assaults for an alleged reign of terror against the homeless for reasons still unknown from Sept. 8 to Sept. 24 in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

Investigators believe Escobar first assaulted two homeless men on Santa Monica beach, leaving one of them in a coma, before beating two homeless men to death with a baseball bat and critically injuring a third in downtown Los Angeles.

None of those crimes captured much public attention, however, until Escobar allegedly bludgeoned to death a fisherman (initially presumed to be homeless, but not) who was sleeping under Santa Monica Pier on Sept. 20. A Sept. 22 attack on a homeless man in Palms and the fatal bludgeoning of a homeless man at Broadway and 7th Street in Santa Monica on Sept. 24 allegedly followed before Escobar’s arrest by Santa Monica police on Sept. 25.

Less than 10 days later, Santa Monica police arrested 21-year-old Joseph Ramirez Perez on Oct. 4 as he allegedly fled after fatally stabbing a homeless man to death in Tongva Park.

The very next day, an unknown assailant reportedly doused a homeless couple with skin-burning acid as they slept in a public park in Mission Hills, that couple already having been targeted with gasoline and bleach.

Police have yet to establish motives in any of these attacks, but the common denominator of the homeless being targets is clear.

“One of the things that we’ve seen routinely are bias-related attacks against the homeless, which have outnumbered all other hate crimes reported by the FBI combined,” said Brian Levin, a criminology professor at Cal State San Bernardino who has testified before Congress about violence against the homeless.

Levin, head of the university’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said the often heated verbal opposition to homeless housing and services for the unsheltered can lead to these types of assaults.

“We believe that negative stereotypes often contribute to attacks on homeless people,” he said. “One of the things that we noticed is there are many examples of overkill — more force is used than necessary.”

Only five states and local authorities in Washington D.C. consider crimes against the homeless to be hate crimes, however.

“There was pending legislation here in the 1990s, but it didn’t pass. We’d like to see California join other states and make it a hate crime to commit a violent act against a homeless person [because they are homeless],” Levin said.

Tahjanae “Tahj” Northcutt, program manager for the local street-based homeless outreach team of the St. Joseph Center in Venice, said many homeless were aware of the fatal beatings in Santa Monica and living in fear before Escobar’s arrest.

“They alerted us to what was happening. It was very disturbing to hear that there was someone who was targeting people who could have been our clients,” Northcutt said.

The St. Joseph Center team encouraged unsheltered homeless people to be on the lookout, especially at night, for unfamiliar people and to report anything suspicious to the police.

“If they were willing to go into a shelter, we tried to find a place for them that night,” she said. “[News about the killings] made it more difficult for us, because sometimes people moved to other locations.”

Robin Doyno, the founder of the Mar Vista Homeless Issues Committee, isn’t surprised to hear that there is no clear motive attributed to recent attacks on the homeless. That includes a July 26 incident in which a still unidentified gunman fired shots into a Mar Vista homeless encampment under the 405 Freeway bridge at Venice Boulevard and Globe Avenue.

“You can get away with murder — literally — targeting people who aren’t middle class or upper middle class. A guy living in a sleeping bag in the corner of a park is easy prey,” Doyno said.

In recent years, several homeless men have been beaten or killed on Venice Beach during seemingly random violent encounters. In January, Apolinar Lopez pled guilty to a savage 2013 beating of a homeless man on the Venice Boardwalk. The attack near Washington Boulevard, recorded by a security camera, showed Lopez striking his homeless victim multiple times with a folding chair.

A gunshot fired into a crowd of homeless people near the Cadillac Hotel on the boardwalk in 2015 killed Jascent Jamal “Shakespeare” Warren, a homeless musician who was attempting to mediate a heated discussion over where a group of homeless men could sleep.

The nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless has documented at least 428 fatal attacks against homeless people in the U.S. between 1999 and 2015.

A 2016 survey of 500 unsheltered men and women of five U.S. cities conducted by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council found that nearly half of those surveyed had been victims of violent attacks. The probability of victim-
hood increased the older the person was and the longer they’d been on the street.

Levin said that increasing the availability of temporary and permanent supportive housing for the homeless would take many of them out of harm’s way, but “I think we’ll see these crimes continuing because of the shortage of affordable and transitional housing.”